A reflection on social isolation
University of Portsmouth Chaplain Revd. Simon Coleman offers a personal reflection on the physical, mental, and spiritual impact of isolation on himself and his family, as well as it's wider social implications.
Today, Wednesday 18/03/2020, I find myself COVID-19-isolated at home with my wife. She has been moderately unwell (with one day of fever and a sort of lingering cough) but I feel fine. I’m trying to keep in touch with work on the phone and online. But the e:mail trails I follow seem more and more confusing. No level of logistical planning could ever have prepared us for all of this. Yet, I am impressed with the level of dedication many staff are showing - even when we all seem to be making it all up as we go along. Humanity is shining through.
I am also in daily contact with my mother and brother, who are also self isolating, and my grandmother who seems perfectly well. My mother in particular seems anxious and fretful.
A colleague at work has asked me and several academic associates to offer informed perspectives for the University's alumni on COVID-19. It appears they want to create some short reflective narratives on the disease, its origins and impacts, including the effects of ‘isolation’ on human well-being. He assumes that as an experienced Chaplain (Christian ‘minister of religion’ type) I might have something useful to say.
Well, here goes, you decide for yourself.
The first thing to say is that I am no academic expert. It’s not as if I have a PhD on the psychological impacts of solitary confinement, or anything remotely similar. However, I have personally experienced being isolated myself; over the years I have worked with many others who have felt completely alone; and I have also witnessed, first hand, how ‘human contact’ can bring healing and hope to vulnerable people.
I think I will share my thoughts under two headings:
The Power of Meaningful Regular Positive Human Contact
Let’s contrast two women. The first, is in her 90s. She lives basically in one room on the top floor of a four-storey building and is reliant on a carer to take her to the bathroom. She has no family to visit her, or to speak to on the phone. The second, is a 30-year-old single mother who has an 11-year-old daughter attending a local school. She has a full time job as a hairdresser, and attends a local church. Who would you say was most Isolated?
Now let me tell you more about these two ladies. Lady number one lives in a well run, very friendly and caring nursing home. She is one of the carers’ favourites because she always seems so positive and never complains about anything. She is also very funny. Before retirement, she worked for 30 years as a nurse and a midwife in the NHS. Although blind, she can still knit, and she now supplies the local hospital with hats, mittens, jumpers, and cardigans, for premature babies - in a wonderfully wide range of colours from donated wool. A few people from the local community visit her every week. There’s a young man she particularly looks forward to a visit from. Why? Well, because he is interested in world affairs, politics, and football. She listens to the news every day, and Match of The Day every Saturday.
Lady number two feels as if she is surviving - only just. She has been suffering with chronic depression ever since her daughter was born. She is constantly sad. Historically, she was sexually and domestically abused by both her father and her former partner - her daughter’s father. She was recently hospitalised after a life threatening episode of self-harm (this was not a suicide attempt). She is tentatively trying to make new friends at Church but often feels she doesn’t really fit. Yet, she has recently had a positive breakthrough in her life, through counselling.
In the middle of her 10th session of therapy, her (male) counsellor simply said, “I believe in you.”
She wept, and through her sobs she replied, “Can I hug you? You’re the first person that has ever said that to me.”
A little closer to home, I well remember how isolated I also felt when suffering from clinical depression in my early 40s. I was a full time Revd., happily married, with two delightful young daughters and lots of friends. Yet, for three whole months, all I wanted to do was hide in a darkened room all by myself. During this time my friend Andy (a local building surveyor) made an excuse, once a week, to pass by my door and drop in with a bag of donuts for a cup of coffee. He stayed 30min. And that was just enough!
These stories illustrate the importance of ‘meaningful positive human contact’ for our wellbeing.
The NHS suggests there are ‘5 (evidence-based) steps you can take to improve your mental health and wellbeing’, and guess what number 1 is?
“1. Connect with other people”
They suggest, “Good relationships are important for your wellbeing. They can:
- help you to build a sense of belonging and self-worth
- give you an opportunity to share positive experiences
- provide emotional support and allow you to support others”
I suggest the crisis we now face in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is actually an opportunity. An opportunity for many good human things. And I personally would highlight that it is an opportunity for us all to find creative ways to make meaningful, regular, positive, human contact with each other. Especially with those who are most vulnerable and isolated.
I am now ringing my mother, my brother and my gran every single day. I’ve never done that before. I am changing.
One thing is sure, our world is not going to be the same after all of this. 2020 will be remembered with great significance in the history of the 21st century. However, can we dream, now, that the world, and UK society, will emerge better? Will there be much less isolation and much more meaningful, regular, and positive human connection? It is up to us all to decide how we will be remembered.
And one advantage we have, over previous generations, is highly sophisticated, accessible, social communication technologies.
Positive Technological Communication, or How to Reclaim Facebook
Monday, 23/03/20. My wife and I have been socially isolated now for a whole week and according to NHS guidelines I need to wait another 7 days before I can return to work. As a University Chaplain I have also now been designated a ‘keyworker’. I am symptom free but a little stir crazy.
Today I want to share a few observations on a revolution which appears to be taking place all around me, in response to COVID-19 isolation. However, before I do so let me first offer a confession and a little historical background.
I confess that I am not great with, nor have ever been a great fan of, technology. This is just who I am. Indeed, a few years ago, a much older friend described me as a ‘luddite’. And, to some extent, she had a point. So, what I am about to say probably has more weight coming from me than it would from anyone else.
Now, a very quick historical view of how we arrived here. In 2007, a human technological revolution took place. Some suggest it was as game changing, as paradigm shifting, as 1440.
In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which set the stage for the Enlightenment (incl. the Protestant Reformation of the Church) which, in turn, transformed both Europe and the world.
Likewise, in 2007, Steve Jobs released the iPhone upon an unsuspecting and unprepared world; a few months later Facebook opened up to anyone with an e:mail address; and Twitter and Apps etc etc etc rapidly followed. The truly ‘digital human age’ finally arrived, ‘social media’ was born, and we all had high hopes for greater human freedom and connectedness, and a better brighter future world.
However, over the last decade things seem to have gone astray, particularly in terms of human and environmental well-being. At the beginning of 2020, the world did not generally feel like a better place than it did in 2007. Why?
Well, part of the problem with any advances in human communications (including the printing press) is their susceptibility to the combined catastrophic influences of Propaganda and Consumption.
I think, intuitively, over the last few years we had all become aware how dangerous digital media was becoming. Indeed, many of us had chosen to opt out of services such as Facebook all together. We’ve seen it used by terrorists; we’ve seen it influencing and biasing politicians, governments and elections; we’ve see it undermining good intelligent journalism; it was a gift to ‘for-profit-non-responsible-non-environmentally-sustainable’ advertising; and research has clearly revealed how addictive it can be, particularly to the under 25 users - potentially harming their mental well-being, neurological development and brain chemistry.
BUT here is the good news.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and our associated social isolation, many people are now reclaiming digital media, especially the social side of it, to reach out to and support others: family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and even strangers. And, as a self-confessed technophobe, I have been amazed at everyone’s creative ingenuity.
iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc etc etc are all being reclaimed for the good of humanity. And the change has taken place in just one week. Viva La Revolution!
Here are just a few examples from our household, all since last Monday:
- We have been sharing reading material as a family on Audible.
- My wife is currently filming a video for the primary school children she teaches on her iPhone.
- We are back on Facebook and catching up with friends we haven’t spoken to in ages, including some in New Zealand.
- Like many churches, our local vicar is now ‘streaming’ a simple Morning Prayer and Compline (at 07:30hrs and 19:30hrs each day) from her study at home. Such services have never been so popular, accessible and essential. Indeed, they are offering me some very useful contemplative structure to my day whilst in isolation.
- And my personal favourite, from many, many others this week, was this suggestion from my friend Si, a fellow musician. “Last night I played Trivial Pursuit with my family in a 4-way WhatsApp video call. And it worked really well. It got me thinking that it could be possible for 4 of us to record a song together…” (Now I’m interested!)
Social isolation is one of the hardest things for human beings to endure. In Western ‘civilisation’ it has recently been a hidden silent epidemic, often hiding in the shadows amongst the forgotten, poor and most vulnerable members of our society.
COVID-19 has brought it out into the open, and called us all to experience it, possibly for the very first time, even if only for just 14 days, or a few months. And, for me at least, it has highlighted two things which I can so easily take for granted in our modern world: the simple power of regular meaningful human contact; and the value of creatively using digital communications to support and care for other human beings - rather than to simply promote, buy and sell stuff that no one really needs.
Finally, a brief theological thought. For me, as a Christian, I see this as a wake up call:
To respond afresh to the second greatest commandment that Jesus taught his disciples, simply to “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”